By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) –The which-guy-should-she-marry dilemma couldn’t be more familiar. But the setting couldn’t be any less so, because this is one of the very few movies set inside an Orthodox Jewish religious society.
So, yes, Fill the Void is an unorthodox movie about orthodoxy, a superior Israeli drama, with its seemingly standard narrative concept about an agonizing and familiar decision, that seems freshly observed.
A devout 18-year-old woman already engaged to somebody else is pressured to marry the husband of her late older sister, who has just died during childbirth.
By wishing to go through with her already arranged marriage and not marry her widower brother-in-law, who is a decade older, Shira, the youngest-daughter-in-the-family protagonist played by the terrifically expressive Hadas Yaron, in her obvious desire to determine her own destiny, is declaring her independence, which is not exactly an option in the confined world of the ultra-Orthodox members of the Hasidic community in which she lives in contemporary Tel Aviv, where gender roles are strictly defined, to say the least.
Part of her mother’s motivation in persuading her otherwise dutiful daughter is to keep the surviving newborn in the family home. And it is Shira’s knowledge that her mother’s heart would be broken if her infant grandson were to leave the country (which could easily happen because the widower is considering an offer of marriage in Belgium) that helps Shira to overcome her initial reluctance.
Debuting writer-director Rama Burshtein, who herself lives in an Orthodox Jewish community, lets the intense human drama unfold without sitting in judgment of the arranged (or, at the very least, very strongly encouraged) marriages being engineered and endorsed.
Burshtein’s work with her cast is strong enough to not seem like acting. And while achieving a semi-documentary authenticity, she also explores themes of loyalty and duty while having some comedic fun with the Hasidic customs and rituals without in any way disrespecting the fundamentalist culture.
As to Yaron’s performance, with the narrative focus as well as the camera lens squarely on her character pretty much throughout, it’s so full-bodied, so nuanced, and so telling that she and her director turn the film into a vivid and moving coming-of-age portrait, one in which her Shira is a vastly different person at the end of the film than she was at the beginning.
Perhaps Burshtein’s most impressive achievement, though, is finding the universality in a story that, on its surface, would seem to be particular to the exotic and insulated culture on display.
By the time the film concludes, we realize that this all-too-human situation could have occurred in any culture at any time.
So we’ll arrange 3 stars out of 4 for this intimate, absorbing, and affecting drama. Don’t avoid Fill The Void, which is about a void but is anything but.